The crews run for the drainage of the Florida sewage reservoir on the verge of collapse
By Gabriella Borter and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – Emergency teams worked around the clock Monday to prevent the collapse of the leaky security wall of a sewage reservoir near Tampa Bay, Florida. They made steady progress after officials warned of impending flooding over the weekend.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked with local public safety teams to drain the Piney Point Reservoir, which holds approximately 480 million gallons, to prevent a major rupture that could trigger a wastewater cascade into the area.
While the pumping operation appeared to alleviate the immediate threat to hundreds of homes near Piney Point, a former phosphate plant, the sewer was diverted to a nearby seaport on the Gulf Coast, creating environmental problems there.
The crisis began over the weekend when a worsening weeklong leak in the security wall led authorities to order the evacuation of more than 300 homes. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a local state of emergency on Saturday.
Authorities were particularly concerned that large piles of phosphogypsum waste, an industrial by-product of fertilizer production, could suddenly collapse and leak into neighboring communities.
Crews from the State Department of Environment and Army Corps of Engineers joined forces on Monday to “reevaluate the stability of this wall and a second breach we may have detected,” said Jacob Saur, director of public safety for Manatee County , in a video explanation.
Even so, he and incumbent district administrator Scott Hopes said the impending flood hazard subsided Monday as expanded pumping operations reduced the volume of the reservoir and eased the load on the retention structure that holds the wastewater.
“By the end of today, when the additional pumps go online, we’ll more than double the volume of water we’re pulling out of this retention basin,” Hopes said at a press conference. There were just under 300 million gallons left by Monday noon, he said, adding that the crews wanted to drain an additional “75 to 100 million gallons a day”.
The wastewater from the property, owned by a company called HRK Holdings, was pumped into Port Manatee on the Tampa Bay Estuary, raising concerns that the nutrient-rich discharge could create algal blooms, toxic to marine life in the estuary.
“The biggest concern we have right now is the amount of nutrients being loaded into lower Tampa Bay,” Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, told WMNF radio on Sunday. “This event, in probably five to ten days, will bring the amount of nutrients to the bay that we would like to see over a full year.”
U.S. Representative Vern Buchanan, a Republican who represents Florida’s 16th district, told reporters Monday that reducing potential environmental damage from drainage is a top priority and that the Environmental Protection Agency is working with local authorities to address the situation monitor and defuse.
“Just the fact that we’re pouring water into Tampa Bay isn’t a great thing,” Buchanan said. “But the reality is, it seems like the right thing to do now.”
HRK Holdings representatives could not be reached immediately for comment.